Before Night Falls

Before Night Falls


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Painting is difficult enough, but literature is practically impossible. Visually, what's on offer? A man with a pencil and a scrap of paper. Even worse, fingers speeding across keys on a word processor at speeds any novelist would die for.

And so filmmakers rely on the life, rather than the work, to illustrate artistic expression. Reinaldo Arenas's life was extreme. Born into poverty in Cuba during the bad old days, he spent his early years surrounded by women, way off in the country. He is seen sitting in a hole in the ground, naked and alone as the camera zooms over him.

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When he was 15, the family moved to a small town and he discovered sin, corruption and sex. Already, he knew about poetry and the mystical power of words. As a way of escaping the provincial trap, he joined the revolutionaries just at the moment that Castro was moving towards Havana.

The movie has been directed and co-written by New York artist Julian Schnabel. As a result, it does not conform to the conventions of the biopic. An awful lot is left to the imagination, as Schnabel takes a more abstract approach than he did with his first film, Basquiat.

Three things come to dominate Arenas's existence - homosexuality, the creative desire and politics. Schnabel, being heterosexual, shies away from details of gay lust. It is left to Spanish actor, Javier Bardem, to imply what affect this had on an impressionable country boy in an atmosphere of post-revolutionary freedom. Despite a performance of glittering brilliance, in which he converses almost entirely in body language, Bardem merely hints at promiscuous pleasure.

At the age of 20, he wrote his first novel, Singing From The Well, which won a national award and brought him to the attention of the literary elite. He would not publish again in his native country. By the late Sixties, Castro had cracked down on artists and homosexuals, arresting them and locking them up in brutal rehabilitation camps.

Politics dictated the author's future. He was thrown into prison, tortured, not allowed to write. He did so, anyway, and smuggled a manuscript to France. The authorities reacted violently. Arenas's story becomes one of survival against unacceptable cruelty, eventually slipping out of the country in 1980 during an amnesty and spending the last 10 years of his life in New York.

Schnabel's film has been hailed as an artistic triumph, winning the Grand Jury Prize. It does not make it any easier to watch.

Before Night Falls has guest stars. Sean Penn is a peasant and Johnny Depp plays the double role of transvestite prisoner and sadistic interrogator. Are they friends of the director? The suggestion of downmarket chic only diminishes the integrity of a sincere, impressionistic movie that contains, in Bardem, the jewel of a performance.

Reviewed on: 14 Jun 2001
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The life of homosexual Cuban writer, from poverty through persecution to freedom.
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Director: Julian Schnabel

Writer: Cunninghan O'Keefe, Lazaro Gomez Carriles, Julian Schnabel

Starring: Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Michael Wincott

Year: 2000

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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